Ghent may be modest in size compared to its big sisters, Brussels and Antwerp, but the nightlife scene here is second to none. Culture Trip’s pick of the best bars takes you from an iconic bruin café (traditional “brown” pub) and a Dutch gin dive to sizzling jazz enclaves and on-trend apero spots.
Given its large student population, Ghent has a reputation for its youthful, rambunctious nightlife scene. Clubs are particularly concentrated on Overpoort Street, a bar-strewn strip dedicated to all manner of student shindigs. But beyond the bustle of these student joints, the city also caters to other revellers, with a full spectrum of drinking spots on offer. “Ghent always has been a bit more left-field and stubborn than other Belgian cities,” says Jules Gahide, owner of Ghent’s Amigo venue. “A lot of different influences and mixtures of people create a pleasant and laid-back vibe.” Ghent-based writer Chanun Poomsawai has picked the best bars for a night out in Ghent.
A stop at ‘t Dreupelkot often feels like a visit to an old-timey apothecary, largely due to its warm brick walls and wooden bar counter, which is manned by charismatic proprietor Pol. Tucked away in the Groentenmarkt Square along the Leie River, this 30-year-old Ghent institution serves up over 200 varieties of jenever (Dutch gin), ranging from fruit flavours to more out-there homemade concoctions, such as cactus, ginger and pepper. Shots start from €2.25 (£1.90) with three sizes to choose from (small, large and double). Pop in, have a swig, and head out into the night – consider your pre-gaming sorted.
Founded by the brothers of acclaimed Flemish author Hugo Claus, Hoogstraat’s number-one bar (literally) has been injecting the city with a constant stream of blues and red-hot jazz since the early 1970s. Inside, black-and-white photos and pin-up art add to the dimly lit interior, which is inspired by Al Capone’s favourite jazz speakeasy in Chicago. Pop down on one of the retro booths or grab a stool by the bar; either choice will see you whisked away to the era of Prohibition right in Ghent’s historical centre. Apart from live jazz sessions, Hotsy Totsy also hosts poetry readings, stand-up comedy and various talks, rightfully retaining its cred as a once-private club for artists and writers.
De Walrus is also one of Ghent’s best vegetarian restaurants, but that’s not the only highlight coming out of this self-styled lichtbruin café (light brown pub). Sitting on a quiet corner of Coupure Links right by Rozemarijnbrug, the cheap-and-cheerful venue is also a favourite drinking spot. It’s easy to see why; De Walrus oozes a genuinely communal atmosphere that’s hard to come by. The convivial vibe, suitably amped up by photographs of moustachioed deck-hands and beach-themed murals, reaches its peak on Saturday nights when intimate live gigs and swing sessions are at full tilt.
Opened in 2018 near the shopping complex Dok Noord, Amigo is the latest project by the same dream team behind the sorely missed venues Kerk, Nest and Bar Wilson. The venue describes itself as a spot for “amigos, bar, coffee, disco and everything in between,” and that’s exactly what you’re getting across its two floors, which are decked out in warm, earthy tones. Here, hungry crowds convene on the ground floor for Mexican and Middle Eastern-inspired dishes and creative cocktails, while rug-cutters rendezvous in the basement for weekly parties showcasing emerging DJs.
While most establishments on the lively Oudburg lane vie hard for your attention, Jigger’s chooses to keep things discreet and lets its creative, artisanal tipples speak for themselves. In this cosy den, or “the noble drug store,” as is written on the unassuming shop front, cocktails reign supreme. And with that in mind, you’d be remiss to simply fall back on the usual classics. Go, instead, for their weekly specials, which are handcrafted by owner Olivier Jacobs and his team of skilled mixologists, using seasonal and homemade ingredients. Personal requests are not only welcome but encouraged, so if you’ve got a fantasy concoction you’d like to see brought to life, this is your chance. Book ahead to avoid disappointment.
Situated just off the Vrijdagmarkt market square, Le Bal Infernal is a used-book café that morphs into a laid-back bar once the sun goes down. Even then, the concept remains the same: browse their impressive floor-to-ceiling shelves and, if you see a title that catches your fancy, take it home for €2 (or trade your own for €1 as long as it falls under the same category). Not in the market for books? This is still one of the city’s cosiest spots to knock back a few drinks, thanks to its warm, wood-dominated interior and bookish vibe. They also host a series of fun events (a weekly speed-dating night was on the programme at the time of writing), so keep an eye out for what’s on.
Housed in Ghent’s former post office building in the heart of Korenmarkt, Zannier Hotels 1898 The Post enjoys a gorgeous setting overlooking the picturesque Graslei framed by the city’s Gothic skyline. And even if you’re staying elsewhere, you can still take advantage of the location from its bar, The Cobbler. Mind you, the bar is an attraction in itself, flaunting dapper decor complete with the building’s original wooden floor, fireplace and stylish sofa. As for the drinks, craft cocktails are where it’s at, so make sure to sample their signature creations, such as Dirty Secrets, which combines Szechuan pepper and aged soy sauce to spectacular effect. A selection of bar nibbles, while on the smaller side, showcases top-shelf Ghent specialties including Het Hinkelpel cheeses and Tierenteyn mustard.
Named after the 15th-century cast-iron cannon found on the same street, and Pieter Brueghel’s eponymous painting, De Dulle Griet boasts medieval decor and the largest collection of Belgian beers in Ghent. Hop connoisseurs can choose from more than 500 domestic and international varieties on offer. And if that’s not challenging enough, there’s ‘Max Van Het Huis’, the tavern’s extra-strength house brew, which is served in a kwak, a massive boot-shaped glass. Here’s the fun part: since these kwaks cost a pretty penny to make, you’re required to give up one of your shoes as collateral.
Opened in 2018, André has its attention fixed on the magical “apero time”, or after-work drinks, satisfying Ghent’s unfading aperobar (aperitif bar) craze. Inside, owners Ann Clopterop and Andreas Dhont bring a slice of tropical jungle to their cosy bar, highlighting the fusion between urbanity and wilderness through plants, forest-green tiles and wooden furniture. Kick off the evening with a shot of limoncello and, if you’re feeling peckish, a side of croquettes (both made in house). And like most spots along the Oudburg strip, the bar also comes with a lovely view of the Leie River – granted that you’re quick enough to grab a seat by the window.
Vlasmarkt, Ghent’s second-liveliest nightlife spot after the student district of Overpoort, is home to some of the best muziekcafés (music cafés) the city has to offer. Notable amongst these is Charlatan, a popular venue that packs in an impressive crowd almost on a nightly basis. And rightly so – its three different rooms (café, bar and concert/dance hall) accommodate a solid weekly agenda consisting of standup comedy, live gigs and genre-encompassing DJ nights. Keep in mind that things can get particularly hectic towards the weekend. So, if you’re finding it a little claustrophobic inside, hop over to Charlatan’s sister bars Bar Jos and Gloria located just a few doors down.